Leaders can help layoff survivors

When forced to layoff staff, workplace team leaders are faced with many significant challenges, not the least of which is raising morale and worker engagement during unprecedented bad times. Workplace layoff survivors are commonly angry, feeling powerless, overwhelmed and highly stressed. Those left behind are being asked to do more with less and are distracted by the flood of bad news and job security fears. Perks are going by the wayside, and the pressure to produce has never been higher.

Understandably, employee engagement and morale are difficult to cultivate in this environment. Research confirms that following layoffs, survivors report higher levels of distrust and lower levels of motivation and engagement. The result? Absenteeism goes up and productivity goes down. Few businesses can afford this now.

How do you keep survivors motivated and engaged?

  • Console your team and foster healing. Allow them time and support to talk about their emotions and frustrations. When they do, cast aside any judgments you may have and listen simply to “understand” them. Demonstrate empathy for those in pain during these difficult times. Leaders who try to push past this without allowing time and healing with their people are making a mistake.
  • Work to rebuild trust. Teams simply can’t operate optimally without trust. Trust is enhanced when leaders demonstrate concern and act with integrity. Trust is also fostered by being transparent and talking straight about reality. Be courageous in front of your team by asking for help, or admit, “I was wrong,” if applicable. There is expert help available to help you and your team get through this difficult time.
  • Reassign roles and responsibilities to remaining workers carefully. In my coaching experience, most leaders don’t pay enough attention upfront to clarifying expectations and role changes. Focus on quantifying and clarifying things such as how much time should be required and what “quality” and “success” look like. There may be noncritical tasks or assignments that will need to be let go. Helping your team prioritize the new workload is important. Each team member should understand how the work he or she does contributes to company or team objectives.
  • Be realistic and support with resources. Some employees will require additional training, coaching and direction to be successful.
  • Provide leadership. Check in with team members to see if they need more support or clarification about who is doing what, when. Make believers of your team that “we’re all in this together.” Communicate that success or failure will be determined by how the team responds under pressure. Reinforce that all hands on deck are required.
  • Acknowledge small wins. Celebrate any success to keep morale up. One Gallup survey reported that 60 percent of American workers report getting no praise or recognition in their workplaces. This isn’t OK. Recognition doesn’t have to be huge bonuses. Small rewards can work — relief from repetitive tasks, pizza parties, an extra day off, etc. The idea here is to foster a team or workplace culture of appreciation, not fear. Leaders who demonstrate they care and appreciate their workers’ efforts will be rewarded with performance.
  • Facilitate teamwork and collaboration. It’s up to the leader to provide an environment that supports and encourages input from everyone for healthy dialogue and debate. Done well, this process will surface tough problems and better solutions.

Again, there is help out there for this. Expert facilitators can help managers and teams with practical problem-solving techniques and approaches that foster collaboration and creativity.

  • Consider doing it differently. It may be useful for your team to re-examine how work is being done and whether it should be done in this environment. This is a good time to look at alternative ways of work system design and prioritization.
  • Use humor, even to poke fun at what’s lousy. One leader recently joked to his senior management team, “The good news is that our building is up to the latest ADA standards and has complete wheelchair access. I figure it will be handy when we’re still working here in our 90s.”

Perspective is in the mind of the beholder and attitude is often the key. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself, and those alongside you, that thirst is quenched from the half of the cup that is full. Be thankful for simple blessings, including jobs and wheelchair ramps.

Job loss top stress

Layoffs are a traumatic event for those losing jobs.

The personal impact of losing a job is significant. According to the Holmes Social Adjustment Scale, losing a job is ranked as a top stress in someone’s life. Losing a job often means a loss of income, security, a community and a sense of identity.

We grieve the loss of a job like we grieve other human losses. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic work on death and dying explains how grief happens in stages:

Denial: “This can’t be happening.”

Anger: “Damn those greedy Wall Street fat cats.”

Bargaining: “If only the market would just stabilize.”

Depression: “I’m a failure.”

Acceptance: “I need to plan for my future.”

No matter what stage you find yourself in, remember these stages are normal, and grieving a loss is a process. What becomes problematic is when people get stuck in one of the stages before acceptance and lose hope, direction and confidence.

What should you do after a layoff?

  • Give yourself permission to grieve. Getting a pink slip, no matter the circumstances, is a traumatic and life-changing event. Feeling pain, fear, uncertainty and loss is normal. It’s important to find someone you can talk to about how you are feeling. Take some time — but not too much — to regroup and recharge. You can’t afford to get “stuck.” If you do, seek professional help.
  • Be kind to yourself. Don’t take it personally or internalize losing your job as part of layoff as a failure on your part. This isn’t about you; it’s about the economy and bottom-line business.

For those with pending layoffs:

  • Get your ducks in a row before you leave. Complete all required HR paperwork and investigate your options regarding stock, vacation or time-off pay and insurance. Collect any money (such as expense reports) the company owes you. Gather references while you still have easy access to your colleagues, co-workers and boss. Create a database of everyone you know and who knows your work. Don’t burn any bridges — it’s a small networking world out there.
  • Update your resume and highlight results and accomplishments. Run your resume by your current boss or co-workers to make sure you haven’t overlooked anything. While you still have a job, gather representative samples of your work. Hiring managers want to see concrete examples of what you can do. PowerPoint presentations, company collateral or reports you have created will be good to share in job interviews.
  • Consider a career change. Your job loss may be an opportunity in disguise. Change, though difficult, is often when we grow the most. Markets, industry, technology and yes, you — all change. Take time to re-evaluate your passions, core values and what matters to you. Identify what you really love to do, activities that energize you vs. those that “drain” you. Career coaches can help you explore how your interests, abilities and experience may fit in other industries or positions and move forward. Perhaps this is your time to go back to school or upgrade your skills to move into another industry or position.
  • Develop resilience. Accept change as a natural part of your career life rather than allowing it to derail or deplete you. Job security is a thing of the past. You remain a capable, competent worker. Remember, the economy has cycles and life has peaks and valleys. What matters to your surviving and thriving is how you respond.
  • Explore possibilities about what you can create in the next chapter of your career. Spend time getting clear about your vision of what you want to achieve. Be proactive and identify opportunities to grow. Scott Peck, author of “The Road Less Traveled” offers this: “It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.”

Management During Hard Times

LEADERS FACE huge challenges during layoffs. One of the greatest is trying to figure out how to keep human capital loyal, engaged and inspired during a climate of layoffs and declining pay raises.

A survey from the Center for Work Life Policy of 1,500 high-income workers indicates that trust and loyalty levels are hitting new lows. Only slightly more than half of those surveyed felt “loyal” to their company and nearly two-thirds said they felt “demotivated” at work.

The pace, pressure and complexity of work has increased dramatically. Meeting the productivity and profitability demands of today’s economic reality will require teamwork and collaboration. Research shows that teams of four or five people can think of more ideas and better solutions to problems together than the same individuals working alone. Unfortunately, these days many employees are focused on self-preservation, which can be the death of the “team.” Getting everyone rowing in the same direction will be a huge competitive advantage in this economic crisis.

What can managers do to improve team engagement and motivation during times of adversity?

  • Walk your leader “talk” or risk losing respect and loyalty. Demonstrate how you are sacrificing if you expect your people to do the same. The best example of what can happen when leaders don’t: The congressional and public outrage that followed the CEOs of the Big Three automakers arriving in Washington on their corporate jets to plead for bailout money. Hardly a demonstration of personal sacrifice. Actions always speak louder than words.
  • Treat employees like the adults they are. Don’t sugarcoat bad news or use phony management-speak. Share information and be transparent about how you or the company are making tough decisions.
  • Call your team to bold action. Identify what’s at stake, what’s in it for them and the need for “everyone’s head in the game.” Motivate and engage workers by involving them in the problem-solving process to surface new ideas, test assumptions and build a solid plan. In the end, they will be more committed to their part of the action plan.
  • Foster community. Humans need connection to make it through and make sense of difficult times. Give people opportunities to share experiences and their concerns. The expression of emotions can foster support for one another. It allows people to see how others are having similar experiences (“We’re in this together”) and can clear the air. (The danger for dysfunctional behavior is high when emotions are driven underground.)
  • Help your team learn to work better together. Bring in a facilitator to drive more honest, healthy debate in meetings and improve problem solving. The stress of today’s workplaces necessitate that workers learn how to resolve differences and communicate more effectively with one another. For workplaces, the skill of giving and receiving feedback should be as fundamental as computer skills. Yet few employees know how to do it. The good news: There are professionals who can help your team learn new critical skills.
  • Demonstrate respect. We all want to feel valued. How management treats workers is critical to whether or not employees will be engaged, loyal and motivated. Telling employees they are “lucky to have a job” sends the wrong message. Instead, send the message that the company is lucky to have such talented and committed workers to get the company through hard times! Leaders need both employees’ hearts and minds in the game to win.
  • To keep A-list players motivated, maintain training or coaching programs targeted to management or leadership development. Cutting these programs sends a message that there are no longer long-term career opportunities, leaving the business vulnerable to having stars picked off by competitors.

Delivering Bad News

BAD NEWS IS everywhere — in the news and the office. Part of a leader’s role and responsibility is to deliver bad news. While announcing layoffs, closings, salary reductions, loss of expected promotions, major clients or business can be extraordinarily difficult and uncomfortable, employees (and often clients) need to be informed. The delivery of bad news needs to be handled professionally, carefully and consciously.

As a professional coach, I can’t overstress that avoiding delivering bad news is not an effective strategy. There is a high cost to silence. Rumor mills take over, which can lead to office paralysis, bad mojo and morale spiraling out of control. It’s not OK for employees to be recipients of their bad news through the grapevine or left speculating about the worst.

Here are my coach’s tips to more effectively deliver bad news:

  • Be prepared. Take the time to reflect, identify and prioritize your key talking points. What do you need to say? It is vital to convey your message clearly and concisely. Keep your message short, precise and simple; don’t overwhelm people with details in your initial delivery. This is not a time to be misunderstood. Prepare so you can be ready for questions you anticipate will be asked.
  • Deliver your message in person. Common courtesy dictates that people should be treated with respect. Yet it astonishes me how many companies deliver bad news via broadcast e-mail! No one wants to get bad news in broadcast. It’s impersonal, makes people feel devalued as human beings and is simply poor form.
  • Don’t make excuses, beat around the bush or bring up something irrelevant. Convey your message in a straightforward and respectful way. Give people credit for their contributions and genuine effort.
  • Don’t ignore emotions — yours or theirs. These situations are emotionally charged. Controlling your emotional reactivity during the delivery of the message is important. Though you can’t control how they react, you can control your emotional behavior. Be mindful of being calm and be prepared to use self-soothing strategies. Understand that feelings are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. In the end, feelings just are what they are. Acknowledge their feelings, your observations and respond appropriately. Most people don’t expect you to change your position. What they do expect is to be heard, seen and validated.
  • Practice your delivery with someone (a trusted adviser or coach). You want to identify any nonverbal messages you may inadvertently be sending that might be misinterpreted. Nervous habits like hand-wringing (indicating anxiety) or putting your hands on your hips (which makes others think you are lecturing them) are things to look out for. You want to use a steady tone and make eye contact. If you don’t make eye contact, people think you are hiding something. Practice your responses to the expected (and unexpected) questions and reactions.
  • Give people time to hear, digest and process the news. Suggest they leave early if they need to collect themselves. Individuals react to bad news in a wide variety of ways. Demonstrate your care, concern and sincere empathy for whatever they may be experiencing. Have a plan for what you or the company can do to help them through the difficult transition period.

Leadership has never been more important. How we manage the most difficult of situations can make all the difference.

Leading in Chaos

TOUGH TIMES often define leaders. There is a big difference between managing and leading. Leaders provide direction, the road map for change and inspiration for even the most difficult journeys. The most effective leaders are good at influencing others — often with their contagious passion. They motivate us to do our best by engaging our minds and hearts in their vision of a preferred future.

Difficult times tend to distinguish great leaders from the mediocre ones. When the going gets tough, the best leaders rely on clear, deliberate and inspiring communication rather than a “command and control” management style. They know that bullying and punishment rarely result in sustainable performance improvement and more frequently result in good people simply leaving. The most effective leaders instill confidence with their solid judgment, integrity and setting clear direction and expectations. During trauma, drama and chaos, they discern priorities and rally the troops with best strategies for solution.

Guidelines for leaders during difficult times:

  • Challenge your perspective and assumptions. If you aren’t confident that you know what is going on in the layers below you, find out — directly and personally. This is not the time for tunnel vision or relying solely on those who keep telling you everything is fine. This could be as simple as managing by walking around. Get input from everyone — especially the front line. Employees will be more motivated to do their best when they identify their leader’s willingness to be in the trenches with them. Getting out there can provide valuable insight into current challenges and opportunities for improvement. Consider bringing employees together to identify what their outlook is and their challenges and potential solutions. And don’t forget the customers — ask them how your organization is doing.
  • Revisit the company’s vision and strategies and revise them if necessary to meet conditions. The only constant is change; being adaptive and communicating change effectively within the organization remains a key management skill. Communicate authentically and frequently. Be straightforward and transparent. Avoid hidden agendas and sugarcoated messages — adults can handle reality.
  • Use the current condition to challenge “business as usual.” Tough times present excellent opportunity for change. Address traditional and outdated policies and procedures, including “minor” challenges that employees and customers have been requesting you fix. Get rid of the minutiae that get in your people’s way of success. Challenge the organization to find ways to make life easier for everyone. Seemingly small improvements frequently result in big payoffs.
  • Proactively identify and support those who demonstrate both the ability and willingness to take creative initiative and lead in tough times. Managers and employees who challenge the status quo while demonstrating they can inspire others while doing so are solid-gold keepers. Support, promote and enhance the skills and capability of these critical resources. These are the people whom senior leaders should be making an extra effort to acknowledge, retain and protect.
  • Identify what — or who — is part of the problem and what is part of the solution. Act accordingly.
  • Demonstrate appreciation for even small efforts and contributions. Most employees will respond by giving you their best if they know you are noticing and appreciating their hard work.
  • Like it or not, it’s often during really tough times that difficult decisions (finally) get made. Leaders who bury their heads in the sand or hide out in their offices frequently find themselves with greater problems and in the end can fail everyone.